Neurodiversity: Driving Innovation

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7 Common Misconceptions about Neurodiversity at Work

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Neurodiversity drives innovation

Early in our journey at Uptimize, we ran a series of interviews with folks in Corporate America, including managers. We asked these managers if they knew what the word “neurodiversity” meant.  Over 60% did not (this was 2018), with one commenting “I had never even heard the word until you just said it”.

Yet, these same managers became animated when asked if the concept of “diversity of thought” was important to them and their companies: “Yes!”, came the near-unanimous reply, “that’s exactly what I need in my team. I’m just not sure how to do it…”.

Understanding “diversity of thought”

“Diversity of thought” refers to, according to one definition, “the range of mindsets, thought processes, and perspectives” that individuals within a team bring to their work and collaboration. The concept is very simple: people bring different thinking to the workplace for all sorts of reasons, and the more variety the greater the potential diversity of thought within an organization or a team.

A simple idea, then, and one that instinctively resonates with most people based on their own experiences: hence the reaction of the managers in our survey group.

The phrase “diversity of thought” in business is still relatively new, its prominence having been crystallized five years earlier through its feature in a major diversity report by consulting giant Deloitte: Diversity’s New Frontier – Diversity of Thought and the future of the workforce (2013). The report, published during a period of several prominent research papers on the business case for diversity and inclusion, highlighted the benefits that employees with very different perspectives could deliver: new insights, an effective guard against the dangers of “groupthink”, and the opportunity for leaders over time to specifically apply “the right people on (the) right problems”.

Diversity’s New Frontier did not explicitly mention neurodiversity (indeed, the earliest specific “neurodiversity at work” initiatives would not emerge until a few years later). But it did strongly allude to the role of thinking styles themselves – not just experiences, and cultural backgrounds – in contributing to the value that diversity of thought can bring. “Advances in neurological research that are untangling how each of us thinks and solves problems can… eventually change how organizations define and harness human capital”, it declared… going on to predict that “Leaders will also need to learn how to adjust their management styles and tactics to better encourage the connections between individuals and their ideas to improve problem solving, learning, cooperation, and innovation” as well as needing “to take increasing ownership of creating an inclusive culture.”

At times, diversity of thought as a concept has been misunderstood – even vilified – for apparently downplaying the need for greater diversity and broader representation. One Forbes article in 2019, entitled “Why we Need to Stop Talking about Diversity of Thought”, defined diversity of thought as “the idea that people in a group don’t need to look different or identify with an underrepresented group in order to bring varying, diverse viewpoints to the table.”

This itself was a reaction to the perceived, and sometimes real, sense that some business leaders saw diversity of thought as a defense against criticisms of their lack of inclusion efforts: something that meant that organizations were already diverse (enough?), and already had people bringing different perspectives. One Apple executive even formally apologized in 2017 having made the comment at a summit that “there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.” Such controversy and criticisms continue, with one writer (in 2022) stating passionately that “Diversity of thought does not equal diversity. When we talk about diversity of thought, we are talking about diversity of opinions and perspectives rather than actual diverse representation itself.”

The more diversity of thought, the better

Let us return, though, to our earlier definition of the concept: of diversity of thought being “the range of mindsets, thought processes, and perspectives” that individuals within a team bring to their work and collaboration. It is true, of course, that no two people are alike (indeed, no two people have the same brain… again, more on that later) and that a collection of individuals – however homogenous – will have some range of experiences and perspectives to bring. However – a group as similar as “12 white blue-eyed blonde men” (who, let’s say, come from very similar ethnic, cultural, geographical and educational backgrounds) will clearly enjoy far less diversity of thought than one with more variety across all those categories. Hence, the villain here appears not to be diversity of thought itself (surely, the more of it the better!) but those using the concept to justify in any way a lack of commitment to representation and true inclusion.

And, while some may use “diversity of thought” as a cop-out in this fashion, others – likely far more – are driven by its potential benefits in terms of innovation, productivity and performance to increase diversity and inclusion efforts.

Witness the commitment of global recruiting leader Michael Page to achieving diversity of thought, and the means it identifies to achieving this: “not only empowering staff to hire outside their zone of familiarity, but also proactively equipping hiring managers with the tools, resources, and training to manage, engage, motivate, and retain diverse staff. This, ultimately, will play a major role in creating diversity of thought.”

Indeed, the firm’s goals and approach show a clear commitment to taking different candidates, something that challenges the safe, rapport-based hiring of “people-like-me” that is often, sadly, endemic at organizations large and small. “A more impactful way to approach hiring is to focus on what candidates will bring to your company precisely because they do not fit the standard template for a prospective candidate (my emphasis)”, continues the article. “By moving beyond the ‘box-ticking’ approach to diversity in hiring, your business will not only become more diverse, but also more innovative, more profitable, and better able to confront market challenges.”

Why neurodiversity is so vital to diversity of thought

Let’s consider now our focus at Uptimize: neurodiversity, the fact that human brains are wired differently in terms of information processing, communication and sensory processing. Humans are, then, by definition, neurodiverse across our species: “There is no normal flower or culture”, wrote author and neurodiversity advocate Thomas Armstrong in 2015, “Similarly, we ought to accept the fact that there is no normal brain or mind.” The members of any team, then, bring a range of brains, by structure and function different from each other. And such brains are, of course, the core “tool” in their day-to-day work. Neurodiversity should have always been a key focus of organizations seeking the optimal output of their human capital: it should, logically, have been considered from the start as the fundamental underpinning of “diversity of thought”, one that crosses all the differences of ethnicity, culture, sexuality, background and so on that themselves are also key contributors here. That this has not been the case is a separate tale – one exploring the history of non-recognition, medicalization, and marginalization of the neurodivergent – yet this is now changing. Clearly, if diversity of thought is a “good thing”, then neurodiversity is a critical and hitherto overlooked element here.

As the narratives around neurodivergence have broadened to appreciate strengths as well as far better known (and oft-stereotyped) challenges, it is now widely recognized that neurodivergent individuals are often highly creative problem solvers. Such abilities can come from insight, pattern-matching and visual thinking, or from simply approaching a problem in a less-common fashion. The stories of many neurodivergent innovators are well-known, from Richard Branson (“the world needs more dyslexic thinking”), to Temple Grandin, whose innovations to make livestock handling more efficient and humane won her numerous awards.

Many less prominent neurodivergent people talk of similar attributes: “I’d say one of my strengths is being able to think outside the box and make connections that maybe other people can’t do”, teacher, speaker and neurodiversity advocate Adam Corre told Uptimize in a 2018 interview. A little-known story from New Zealand provides further illustration here: that of Ayla Hutchinson, a 13 year old dyspraxic girl who received a patent for a revolutionary log-splitting device she created after seeing her mother injured using a conventional tool. Like many well-known neurodivergent business leaders, including Branson, Hutchinson actively credited her neurodivergence with her success, explaining that perhaps she saw “something that normal people (sic) wouldn’t have seen”.

Innovation, though, more often comes from the work of a group – what some term the “Collective Brain” – than from the insights of one brilliant individual. Indeed, it is because of this that we typically problem-solve and strategize as teams, looking to embrace the contributions – indeed, the diversity of thought – that such teams can provide. It is within such teams, perhaps, that neurodivergent people can most effectively (and most frequently) contribute to this, and to the likelihood of innovative outcomes.

This is something eloquently and modestly echoed by Jamie Knight, a web developer at the BBC at the time he was interviewed by author Adam Feinstein for his 2018 book Autism Works on autism and employment. “I’m not sure I personally have an advantage in the workplace,” Knight said, perhaps wary himself of the idea of neurodivergent “superpowers”. “However,” Knight continued, “an advantage to all workplaces is to have a wider range of experiences and perspectives. More perspectives tease out better solutions . . . I bring a different perspective from most other people and I enjoy explaining things. That’s a useful combination. It’s also true for many other minority groups.”

Innovation – via diversity of thought – is of course particularly vital in the 21st century economy. Organizations continue to have to adapt to new technologies and rapidly changing dynamics in their industries and with the workforce in general. Innovation can come at different levels – a new product, or a new process – and can be either “leap” or “creep”, with many organizations finding value in incremental innovations that enhance an existing product or make an existing process flow more efficient.

Neurodivergent professionals continue to face barriers

However, neurodivergent professionals often continue to face significant barriers at work – despite the critical importance of innovation and their obvious role in contributing to “diversity of thought”.

Such barriers can include cultural ignorance (leading to a preference for “masking” their traits), as well as hiring processes shaped without neurodiversity in mind. Particularly important when it comes to our topic of innovation, too, are the barriers that neurodivergent employees (and, it must be said, others too) can face when seeking to make innovative suggestions in their organizations and teams. One survey in 2021 found, for example, that 46% of (all) workers do not believe their organization values different views, approaches and attitudes. Another, from 2017, alluded to the particular challenges experienced by neurodivergent employees, revealing that 75% of employees within disability categories have had an idea they think would drive value from their companies yet 48% have not seen these ideas receive endorsement.

Verbatims from the neurodivergent community through Uptimize’s focus groups confirm the reality of such barriers, with professionals describing a variety of political/process-based/laziness-driven opposition to their constructive ideas. This reality cannot be healthy or effective for organizations as they seek to innovate and win, and speaks to a lack of psychological safety that must be addressed urgently in order to change this for the better.

Neuroinclusion drives innovative outcomes

We need, then, to innovate – and to do so, we (still?) need a variety of human brains to come together to drive creative solutions. Neuroinclusion – efforts to ensure well-being, belonging, and psychological safety for every type of thinker in an organization – allow us to build and leverage true “diversity of thought”  by ensuring teams feature people with different thinking styles who are able to collaborate optimally.

It’s instructive, here, to witness what happens in practice when organizations make efforts to build more neurodiverse teams, and boost neuroinclusivity. At DXC Technology, for example, new neurodivergent employees in technical departments quickly, in the words of one manager, “helped sharpen up some of the thought processes amongst the teams”. Meanwhile, consulting giant EY has compared both the productivity and innovative performance of neurodivergent and neurotypical professionals in similar roles, finding the former excelled in the innovation sphere, quickly identifying process improvements that cut the time needed for technical training by 50%. Another pioneer in the “neurodiversity at work” space, SAP, has benefitted from one young autistic employee filing two patents for the firm.

In 2022, neuroinclusion is an expected and valuable element of diversity programming in the corporate world. If your careers and diversity pages still fail to mention neurodiversity and its importance, and your organization continues to offer limited or no training or resources on the topic, be very aware that your competitors may no longer be making this mistake. Semiconductor company ASML, for example, states on its website what all companies should state their own version of: that “A large number of employees at ASML are ‘neurodivergent’ – meaning they have neurological variations such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia…People who are neurodiverse are highly valued at ASML, since they tend to be better than average at analytical thinking, logic, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.” Peter Baillière, ASML executive vice president of HR, declares simply “ASML wouldn’t be where it is today without neurodivergent people, some of whom are in top leadership roles in the company.”

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“The innovative drive lives in every human brain” wrote Neuroscientist David Eagleman and composer Anthony Brandt in a leading piece for the Smithsonian Magazine, Where do new ideas come from?. It is by combining such brains, and the fruits of their infinitely different wiring, that organizations can find the solutions – big or small – that will enable them to thrive in this decade and beyond. Recognizing this, smart organizations are making efforts to include people not only of different cultural perspectives and experiences, but also of fundamentally different thinking styles – and quickly seeing business results.

To learn more about how Uptimize can help your organization with their neuroinclusion efforts, through our neurodiversity training and consulting solutions, please contact us to schedule an initial discovery call

Ed Thompson Founder CEO Uptimize

Ed Thompson is the CEO and founder of Uptimize – a unique corporate training platform that helps organizations attract, hire and retain talent that thinks differently. Uptimize works globally with organizations like Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte and IBM, building robust and impactful neurodiversity at work programs. Ed has also become a frequent speaker on the topic of neurodiversity in the workplace and is launching a book on neuroinclusion Spring 2023.

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